Workers Vanguard No. 907
1 February 2008
Supreme Court: Retooling the Machinery of Death
Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!
On December 17, New Jersey abolished the death penalty, becoming the first state to do so since the Supreme Court reinstated the barbaric practice in 1976. The Jersey repeal followed the recommendation of a state commission that described the death penalty as “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency” (Washington Post, 14 December 2007). Legislatures in several other states, including Maryland, Montana, New Mexico and Nebraska, have also debated abolishing the death penalty. Meanwhile, there has been an effective moratorium on executions across the country while the Supreme Court hears the case of Baze vs. Rees to decide whether the mixture of chemicals currently used in lethal injection is unconstitutional.
The gruesome spectacle of the Supreme Court pondering the best mixture of chemicals to use to “humanely” kill more than 3,000 death row inmates is of a piece with the ghoulish debate over whether CIA “waterboarding” of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay is torture. Let’s be clear: capital punishment is a barbaric legacy of medieval torture and, in the U.S., of black chattel slavery. Today, black people make up some 42 percent of the death row population—three times their representation in the general population. Capital punishment is a system of legal murder that reinforces the brutalization of society in all respects; it is the lynch rope made legal. We stand for the abolition of the death penalty on principle and everywhere—for the guilty as well as the innocent. We do not accord the state the right to determine who lives and who dies.
We Marxists welcome any pause in the machinery of death and certainly outright abolition by states such as New Jersey. At the same time we warn, as we did last year after several states issued full or partial moratoriums on executions:
“The fact that state governments are tinkering with the death penalty does not signal a ‘change of heart’ by the U.S. capitalist rulers who wreak death and destruction from Baghdad to New Orleans. Rather, state officials seek to clean up their procedures for legal murder when there has been a sharp drop in public support for capital punishment.”
—WV No. 883, 5 January 2007
Such is manifestly the case in the Supreme Court deliberations over lethal injections, which are at bottom not about getting rid of capital punishment but rather about refurbishing it. Moreover, despite the “Anybody but Bush” efforts of the reformist left on behalf of the Democrats, the other capitalist party of war and racism, every one of the leading Democratic Party presidential contenders—Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards—openly supports the death penalty. Indeed, it was under the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton that the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was signed, virtually eliminating the right of habeas corpus appeals for those sentenced to death in state courts.
Over the past decade, support for the death penalty has diminished: 62 percent of Americans support the death penalty, compared to 80 percent in the mid 1990s. Support for the death penalty has been shaken by a series of botched executions: the 20-minute torture of Stanley Tookie Williams in December 2005; the May 2006 execution of Joseph Clark in Toledo, Ohio, which lasted almost 90 minutes; the 34-minute killing of Angel Nieves Diaz in Florida in December 2006. Whether it be electric chairs turning victims into human fireballs, gas chamber asphyxiations or the chemical torture that today dominates America’s death chambers, there is nothing “humane” about capital punishment.
Another reason for waning support for the death penalty is that plenty of those executed were framed-up and innocent. In 2000, after the thirteenth case of a death row inmate in Illinois whose conviction had been patently false became known, Republican Illinois governor George Ryan called a moratorium on executions. Shortly before leaving office in early 2003, Ryan freed four death row inmates who were victims of torture by Chicago police commander Jon Burge and commuted the death sentences of 167 others. Since 1992, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate more than 200 people using DNA evidence—including 15 on death row. Close to 130 death row inmates have been set free nationally. In December 2007 alone, three men who had served a combined total of more than 40 years were freed when it was proved they were innocent.
Reforms, including that of death penalty abolition, are products of both class and social struggle and imminently reversible under capitalism. When the death penalty was put on hold by the capitalist rulers in 1967, they faced tumultuous civil rights struggles and burgeoning protests against the Vietnam War. U.S. imperialism also sought to present a more liberal image for American “democracy” in the world arena, where it competed for influence with the Soviet Union. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was “wanton and freakish” and ordered states to rewrite their laws. By 1976 the racist backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement was already underway. It was in this reactionary climate that the Court restarted the machinery of legal murder. Only the abolition of racist capitalist rule through the victorious seizure of state power by the proletariat will bring about the abolition of the death penalty once and for all.
Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Now!
The death penalty stands at the pinnacle of the state’s arsenal of repression—an apparatus consisting of the army, cops, courts and prisons that protects the class rule, property and profits of the capitalist class. The ruling class has repeatedly staged exemplary executions of their perceived opponents for the sheer purpose of instilling terror—such as the Haymarket martyrs, anarchist fighters for the eight-hour day, hanged in 1887; Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, executed in 1927; Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Communist Party supporters executed in 1953 on charges of giving “secrets” on the bomb to the Soviets.
Such is now the rulers’ intent in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal—a Black Panther Party spokesman in his youth, later a MOVE supporter and award-winning journalist—who was framed up and convicted of the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Mumia sits on death row today, a political prisoner that the forces of racist “law and order” want to see dead because they see in him the spectre of black revolt, a voice of defiant opposition to the oppression of black people. Mumia’s innocence is proven by an abundance of evidence, including the confession of another man, Arnold Beverly, that he, not Mumia, shot and killed Faulkner.
The fight to save Mumia and free him from prison hell must be a key focus of the struggle to abolish the racist death penalty! When California executed Tookie Williams despite a massive international outcry, it was an ominous signal of the rulers’ intent to kill Mumia. It is no accident that Murdered by Mumia, written by right-wing journalist Michael Smerconish and Maureen Faulkner, the widow of Daniel Faulkner, is a rallying cry not only to execute Mumia but for the death penalty itself (see the PDC Fact Sheet pamphlet, Big Lies in the Service of Legal Lynching).
Pennsylvania, the state where Mumia languishes on death row today, has made clear that it is “Committed to Death Penalty,” as a Philadelphia Inquirer (1 January) headline underlined. In the last week of 2007, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court affirmed four death sentences. Democratic governor Edward Rendell has signed 76 death warrants since 2003—including two since the New Year alone. Almost 60 percent of death row prisoners in Pennsylvania are black—while black people make up less than 11 percent of the state’s population.
The fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal is at a critical juncture. The 1 January Philadelphia Inquirer article explicitly stated, “Among those now awaiting a pivotal ruling is Philadelphia’s best-known death-row inmate, Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose case has been followed around the world.” More recently, a 27 January Philadelphia Inquirer article reported that a decision on Mumia’s case by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals is expected soon. If the court rules to uphold the death sentence or denies Mumia’s appeals for a new trial or a new hearing, the Partisan Defense Committee and Labor Black Leagues have called for protests on the day after the decision. The PDC is also mobilizing a class-struggle contingent for the national demonstration called by the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal on the third Saturday after the decision. Mobilize now to free Mumia!
Death Penalty: The Lynch Rope Made Legal
Several hundred years ago, when the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class, its representatives opposed medieval cruelty. The frame-up and torture of French Protestant Jean Calas in 1762 for the murder of his son, and his execution on the wheel, led Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire to write his famous On Toleration. Now, descending ever deeper into naked state brutality and depravity, “civilized” representatives of the American bourgeoisie have given up any pretense of humanism or rationality and openly debate how to torture and kill. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently ranted, “Where does this come from that in the execution of a person who has been convicted of killing people we must choose the least painful method possible? Is that somewhere in our Constitution?” (International Herald Tribune, 7 January).
Most imperialist countries have abolished the death penalty; only the United States and Japan regularly execute people. In the U.S., the death penalty directly intersects black oppression, which is the cornerstone of American capitalism. The chattel slavery system—a foundation for the economic growth of the United States from colonial times—was based upon the ability of slave owners to inflict torture and death upon their “property” at will.
The Civil War smashed this system, but the betrayal of Radical Reconstruction by the Northern capitalists resulted in the denial of basic rights for black people in the South. The lynch rope was the tool of the trade of the Klan and others who sought to overturn Reconstruction, while the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow system was maintained by lynch-law terror. More than 3,000 black people were lynched between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the dismantling of Jim Crow, while more than two-thirds of those “legally” lynched nationally between 1930 and 1967 were black people. In 1987, in the face of overwhelming evidence of the racist nature of the death penalty, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold capital punishment in McCleskey vs. Kemp, arguing that to challenge the racist nature of the death penalty “throws into serious question the principles that underlie the entire criminal justice system.” Indeed!
Take a look at Texas, the former Confederate state that leads the nation in executions. There, legal public hanging, then the electric chair, and later lethal injection took the place of extralegal lynching. As The Rope, the Chair, and the Needle: Capital Punishment in Texas, 1923-1990 (1994) showed, “the line between legal and illegal hangings was often razor-thin.” In Texas, black people comprise some 40 percent of the death row population even though they make up less than 12 percent of the Texas population.
The legal machinery of death is supplemented by killings of ghetto and barrio youth on the street by cops acting as judge, jury and executioner. Prisons in the U.S. teem with some 2.2 million people—a quarter of the world’s prison population—some 60 percent of whom are black or Latino. This vast, historically ingrained system of racist repression cannot be fundamentally changed through tinkering here and there. Unlike liberals who pose life without parole—i.e., being entombed in prison for life—as an “alternative” to the death penalty, we are opposed to the bourgeoisie’s entire machinery of repression.
What is necessary is the forging of a class-struggle workers party with a significant black leadership component. Such a party will be built in opposition to both parties of capital and will be dedicated to mobilizing the social power of labor in defense of the interests of all working people and the oppressed, leading to the expropriation of the capitalist rulers and the establishment of working-class rule.
In those states where capitalism has been overturned, we are likewise opposed to the barbaric institution of capital punishment. While supporting necessary military measures in defense of the workers state against capitalist counterrevolution, we are opposed to the death penalty being part of the permanent penal code of a workers state. In this, we stand in the tradition of the Bolsheviks who carried out the 1917 October Revolution. Against this Bolshevik tradition, Stalin took the temporary emergency measures that the young Soviet workers republic had instituted to defend itself during the Civil War and made them permanent, twisting them into the most grotesque opposite of what the Bolsheviks intended (see “Abolish the Death Penalty!” WV No. 117, 9 July 1976). We fight for the unconditional military defense of the remaining deformed workers states—China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam—against imperialist attack and capitalist counterrevolution. At the same time, we fight for proletarian political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracies in these countries.
Our revolutionary perspective is far from the liberal anti-Communist pabulum pushed by various fake-left organizations, such as the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which has devoted much time and resources to its Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP). An article in the International Socialist Review (January-February 2008) by the national director of the CEDP explains that its goal is “to build struggles that put pressure on politicians to answer to us—that’s critical to advancing the fight for abolition.” Socialist Worker (18 January) makes crystal clear what this means, reporting that the CEDP is planning to protest the Democratic Illinois Attorney General on Valentine’s Day in order to “urge Lisa Madigan to ‘have a heart’” in her dealings with the torture victims of Chicago police officer Jon Burge!
Socialist Worker (26 October 2007) argues that “in the absence of pressure from below strong enough to force them to do otherwise, the Democrats will do what’s necessary to please the corporations that fill their coffers.” Why stop with Madigan? The ISO et al. might consider going hat in hand to Pennsylvania governor Rendell, who was the District Attorney who prosecuted Mumia and who is also a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
In fact, the entire gamut of reformist leftists have pinned their hopes on this capitalist “lesser evil,” not only through “pressure” in the streets (not so visible these days) but also through outright support to Democratic Party candidates. The misnamed Revolutionary Communist Party counseled its supporters in the 2004 presidential elections to vote for Democratic candidate John Kerry “if you feel you really have to” (Revolutionary Worker, 29 August 2004). Workers World Party has supported a variety of Democrats and now leaves open the possibility of support to Barack Obama (see “The Obama Campaign and the ‘End of Racism’ Myth,” WV No. 906, 18 January).
The fight to abolish the racist death penalty, to free Mumia and all class-war prisoners, is an integral part of the struggle to forge a Leninist vanguard party to lead the working class in the fight for socialist revolution. This requires not only a break with the phony “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party and a political struggle against the pro-capitalist trade-union tops who act to chain the proletariat to their class enemy, but also exposure of the craven reformist left. This barbaric system cannot be reformed to serve the interests of workers and the oppressed; it must be destroyed in order to open the road to a socialist future.